What Exactly are Participles?

The definition and qualities of a ‘Participle’ is a subject of debate among grammarians, so in case you’ve ever been a little confused by how that word is used, we’d like to share with you the definition that we use for Insights to English content.

 

Definition

A ‘participle’ is any word* that has a verb at its base, but ends with the -ing or the -ed/en suffix (or for irregulars, may undergo more of a transformation for the perfect/passive participle, which may be specific to that word).

In other words, a participle is defined by its form, not its usage.

 

Inclusion

Part of Speech does not play into whether a word is a participle or not.  Participles are perhaps most commonly used as verbs, particularly in Continuous tenses (for the Progressive Participle) and in Perfect tenses (for the Perfect Participle).  Passive Voice also makes use of participle verbs.

But participles can be other parts of speech as well, including adjectives, adverbs, and nouns.  As long as it has that participle ending, it is considered a participle.*

Exclusion

* The only exceptions are nouns that end with -ing and are tangible objects, not activities.  These include words like ‘building’, ‘painting’, and ‘writing’.  This applies to cases in which the noun is the product of the verb that serves as its base.  For example, “Your painting has improved over the years,” includes a participle/gerund, but “This museum houses 300 paintings,” does not.

 

Types

There are two core types of participles:

  1. Active or Progressive Participles (also called Present Participles) focus on the action, activity, or moment of the verbs that form their base.
  2. Passive or Perfect Participles (also called Past Participles) focus on the result, aftermath, or receipt of the verbs that form their base.

 

Gerunds

Gerunds can be viewed as a particular kind of Active Participle when it’s used as a noun.  This applies when Gerunds are considered to be single words.  In this case, Gerunds are a subset of Participles.

A different argument can be made that Gerunds are noun phrases that contain Active Participles as the featured noun (and that Participle may or may not be the only word in the Gerund phrase).  For example, “I’m tired of cleaning the kitchen,” uses the Participle ‘cleaning’, but the full Gerund is ‘cleaning the kitchen’.

 

See More

  • Watch our Gerunds video to see these -ing noun phrases in action.
  • Watch our Verb Patterns video to see how Active Participles (most of which are also Gerunds) can serve as complements to verbs.
  • Watch our Participle Adjectives video to see how Passive and Active Participles can modify nouns.

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